22 July 2008

the apologetics of flawed leadership

Somewhere along the way it became important for believers to become champions of their faith. No longer was it appropriate for those who carried the gospel, especially publicly, to be open in displaying the shortcomings of their faith and leadership. After all, weakness is not something that ought to be emulated - at least in the flourishing American culture in the early 21st century.

In matters of faith there exists a balance between achieving moral excellence and maintaining moral transparency which can bring us to a fuller experience of being real. When these matters fall out of balance, there is a clear and definite loss of the efficacy of the kingdom message. Most believers would agree that there is a particular need to emphasize moral excellence in the postmodern church. But is that emphasis being taken too far that the postmodern believer no longer possesses moral transparency?

Because churches are so concerned with success (often driven by attendance, buildings and cash) there is a very strong perception that there is no room for failure. And although business models suggest that there really is no room for the loss of people, visions and cash flow this mindset is quickly transferred to ethics and morality and faith. There are many instances where such a culture of drive and performance comes from church boards and denominational leaderships, but just as often it comes from the spiritual emphases of the community as well. We have created a church culture that is afraid to fail, both in ministry and morality.

It should be no wonder that so many church leaders are struggling with very serious issues of faith and morality. There is such a demand for moral excellence placed upon believers that those who choose to lead feel that they have to be perfect in order to be effective. And that drive for perfection only makes a situation which is prone to crumble and collapse. Perhaps it is quite simply analogous to baseball, in which increasing amounts of pressure are being placed upon the pitcher (ignoring the fact that hitters are supposed to hit and that the other seven players behind the pitcher have some responsibility as well). When a team does not give its own pitcher ‘run-support’ then the pitcher feels as though he must be perfect in his execution in order to gain a victory. More often than not, this pressure reveals the cracks in the pitcher’s game and all goes downhill. In this same way, the pressure which is being placed upon believers, especially those in leadership, is causing them to find ways to find ‘release’, often to very serious consequences.

This is why moral transparency needs to be regained among our church’s leadership. To allow people to struggle with their shortcomings and display their own faults will allow them to be human, and to find their success not in their own perfection but in the all-sufficient grace which comes through Christ. Perhaps we have believed that our message will not be effective if we are candid about ourselves - that people will see us as hypocrites and will laugh us away from them. And maybe that’s an accurate assessment of who we really are - unless our message reflects the true nature of the gospel: the story of a fallen people who have been renewed not by their own merit but by the power of God to change the hearts of humanity.

I find it interesting that Scripture can be so candid about the many failures of those who became the foundation of this kingdom movement, yet we remain so closed about who we really are. In the opening chapter of Galatians Paul speaks of how he put to death many who taught Jesus as messiah. He does not shy away from his own story, but uses it to give a powerful picture of the unsurpassable mercy and grace of God. N. T. Wright has written, “It is necessary too, that Christian leaders should be seen to be telling their own story truly.” *

And this should not mean that we revel in our own shortcomings, as some evangelical leaders who wish to promote their own weakness as a sign of sentimentality and cheesy spirituality. No, these people have received their reward in full and have hearts filled with marketing dreams of the better ecclesiastical life. There is no message of the kingdom present in such activity and the Spirit of God is not amused.

Perhaps one of the greatest areas of the popular notion of lifestyle evangelism may be found in the raw and flawed leadership of the church. Cutting through all of the philosophical and theological arguments for faith one will find the most profound creeds of the church exist in the ability to allow true humans to regain their true humanity. And although we prefer that our physical medical facilities be sterilized, the spiritual awakening must occur in the darkest and filthiest recesses of our own humanity. All this so that we might allow God to do what God is supposed to do - come and find us. When we allow our churches to become antiseptic religious zones we send the message that one must have it all together before finding the kingdom, thus promoting (even implicitly) that believers are champions - further edging out God’s ability to do what God is supposed to do.

There is a definite balance which needs to be struck in approaching a healthy construct of church: our assemblies ought not be flawed for the sake of being flawed, yet should not be sanitary out of a motive of clean religion. The message we share is that humanity can be accepted and changed. Acceptance means in the midst of and in spite of our flaws. Change means leaving our flaws behind - not forgotten and ignored but counted as loss for the sake of the gospel before us.

*Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (Louisville: WJK, 2002), 9.

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